Monday, May 22, 2017

The manner in which Hindi is promoted hasn't helped national unity. One-sided policy has hindered it


Was it necessary to kick up the Hindi controversy all over again? A better model was available to the authorities. Within a fortnight of the Modi Government taking office, a circular had gone round Central Government offices asking for Hindi to be used in social media. Protests rose from non-Hindi states and the PMO quickly doused the fire by explaining that the circular was only meant for Hindi-speaking states. Earlier this month, in an apparent bid to prove more loyal than the king, the Official Language Committee headed by Kiran Rijuju proposed -- and the President of India approved -- that all dignitaries give their speeches/statements in Hindi only (meaning that those who did not do so in Hindi would not be considered dignitaries), that flight announcements be in Hindi followed by English (that is how it is now, so what was the need to rub it in?) Minister Rijuju said "we are not imposing Hindi, only promoting it like any other language". Like any other language? What's his most recent move to promote Telugu or Konkani?

It is part of Hindi chauvinism to assume that South Indians are anti-Hindi. They are not. They have heartily welcomed cinema, television, sports and latterday phenomena like migrant labour that spread spoken Hindi across the region. What blocks Hindi are two other obstacles. First, the air of superiority of the Hindiwalla, especially when he has precious little to be superior about. Secondly, the advantage people from Hindi states get in the job market.

In 2016 the official Sarkari Naukri Portal advertised hundreds of thousands of jobs -- total government vacancies 2,73,879, graduate government jobs 82,319 and so on. When applicants for these jobs are processed, candidates whose mother tongue is Hindi get a natural advantage over those from non-Hindi areas, irrespective of professional qualifications. It is a pity that the over-enthusiastic Rijuju does not understand the bread-and-butter implications of Hindi.

Even as Rijuju was busy promoting "all" the languages, another patriot went to the Supreme Court with the plea that the Centre, the states and Union territories be asked to make Hindi compulsory for class I to VII students across the country "to promote national unity". The Court not only refused to entertain the plea; it noted that the petitioner was a spokesman of the BJP's Delhi chapter and asked: "Why does he not ask his party to do it? He is part of the Government". For that matter, why does he not ask about the three-language formula, enshrined as state policy in 1968, which requires people in Hindi-speaking states to study Hindi, English and a modern Indian language. How many in UP have studied English and another Indian language? A one-way perspective supported by arrogance cannot "promote national unity".

Other countries march ahead of us by being practical, not chauvinistic. In 2001 China made English a compulsory subject in primary and secondary schools. English also became a required subject, along with Mandarin and mathematics, for the National Higher Education Entrance Examination. Today nearly 94 percent of students who have to study a foreign language choose English. This has been a factor in China's march in recent years to world leadership.

Inspiring was the example set by Indonesia, a country of 17,500 islands with 260 "vigorous" languages and 350 declining languages. As much as 45 percent Indonesians are Javanese. And yet the leadership of the freedom movement, though dominated by Javanese, decided that independent Indonesia should not have a system that would give undue advantage to the Javanese and their language. So they chose as the national language a Malay-Jawi mix and gave it a neutral name, Bahasa Indonesia. To clinch the unifying reform, they also adopted the Roman (Latin) script for the new Bahasa. That was patriotism true and proper.

The only Indian leader who had that kind of vision was Subhas Chandra Bose. In the Haripura session of the Congress in 1938, Bose as President mooted the idea of adopting Roman script for Hindustani. He explained how Kamal Atatuk's decision to introduce Roman script in Turkey had worked wonders in that country. Of course the Congress simply ignored the idea. It was Mahatma Gandhi, a Gujarati, who proposed that Hindi be the national language with Devanagari script. Instead of uniting India, it has proved divisive because Hindi is promoted with neither the pragmatism of Subhas Chandra Bose nor the wisdom of the Javanese. All that the promoters have is a blinkered view of nationalism -- and we keep paying for it.



Monday, May 15, 2017

With Kerala's CM inviting humiliation after humiliation, the CPM saga may be coming to a close in India


Are we witnessing the final fade-out of communism's run in India? West Bengal was a Left citadel that seemed impregnable for three long decades. Rather suddenly it crumbled and repeated attempts to put it together again have failed. Kerala then became the Marxists' only viable address. The electoral victory they gained in the state last year was impressive and the chief minister's chair was filled by the Indian Left's legendary Strong Man, Pinarayi Vijayan.

From day one, however, and for reasons no one can understand, Pinarayi became a standing monument to foolishness. False step after false step led to humiliation after humiliation for himself and for his Government. By last week, in the wake of heavy lashings by the Supreme Court, Pinarayi looked not just a comic figure but also a dangerous one out of tune with all others including his own party leaders.

There is a pattern in his conduct: He always takes a position against public opinion. Is it ego, arrogance or the Strong Man showing that he can do what he pleases? When students began an agitation against malpractices in a family-run law college, the Chief Minister supported the erring family. The students gained widespread public sympathy and eventually won their demands, but Pinarayi continued to be on the side of the wrongdoers.

More unpopular was his backing of a private college management against which students rose in revolt following the suicide of one of them. The management was accused of torturing him and others who questioned practices like extracting money under various pretexts. When the dead boy's protesting mother was manhandled by the police, people across the state were outraged by the Government's insensitiveness. The family's demands were finally conceded, but only on paper, while the Chief Minister went on making disparaging remarks about the grieving mother and her relatives. The loss of public goodwill for the Government was massive.

On other fronts, too, the public was either puzzled or offended. In an unprecedented move, the Chief Minister started surrounding himself with special advisors -- legal advisor, media advisor, economic advisor (from Harvard University), police advisor; two of his ministers were obliged to resign in unhappy circumstances; Kannur politics (from his region of the state) saw 18 political murders in one year attributed to the CPM and BJP; he was seen generally against the popular drive to remove encroachments in the hills of Munnar, criticising the officials carrying out orders.

It was his handling of the police that exposed a confused, inefficient and self-obsessed Pinarayi ( who is Home Minister as well). He began his term by removing the police chief, Senkumar. Improving police efficiency was not the intention, for major cases of incompetence followed. A film actress was kidnapped and assaulted and even before investigation could begin, the Chief Minister said it was not a conspiracy. On World Women's Day, Shiv Sena's moral police attacked couples, and policemen stood around watching. A woman student died in mysterious circumstances and so did two school girls within two months of each other; police investigations became a farce.

And Senkumar went to court. The way Pinarayi handled the matter became a classic case of moronism. The Supreme Court ordered the Government to take Senkumar back as chief of police. A sensible government would have quietly done so and minimised the damage to its prestige. But Pinarayi, with all those advisors around him, delayed Senkumar's reinstatement for a week, then filed a new petition asking for clarity in the court's order. The court dismissed the petition, disregarded the Government lawyer's apology, imposed a fine of 25,000 rupees towards costs, remarked that it was now convinced that the removal of Senkumar in the first place was done with "malafide intentions", and issued notice on a contempt of court petition against the state's chief secretary.

Shamed as no government had been shamed before, the Pinarayi machine still didn't see the light. Just before Senkumar was reinstated, a hundred police officers were hastily reshuffled in the state, evidently to keep a watch on the new chief. A chief minister so scared of his own police chief? Additionally, he stood before the state assembly and made amazing claims: the Government had not been fined by the court, there was no apology by the Government, we only followed procedures, the Government did nothing wrong....

If this is how Pinarayi Vijayan goes on, the CPM may be off India's power map for good. People can take the foolishness of fools, but not the foolishness of egoists.

Monday, May 8, 2017

China's take-over of the South China Sea is complete; a summit next week clinches its strategic gains


A week from today "the biggest diplomatic event of the year" will take place in China with many heads of government in attendance (not India's). This is the first summit of Xi Jinping's prestigious signature project -- the One Belt One Road (OBOR) enterprise to build a network of railways, ports and powergrids linking Asia, Africa and Europe.

The sheer sweep of the concept -- shall we say, the daring -- is a proclamation of China's ambitions. We will miss the big message underlying the big idea if we see OBOR in isolation. It is part of an awakening that has transformed China into the world's second most powerful country, poised to overtake the first. The economic muscle that is being built through projects like OBOR is but an extension of the military and strategic muscles that are continuously being strengthened.

Consider the South China Sea. Large portions of this expanse constitute the territorial waters of Vietnam, Malaysia, Philippines and Indonesia. Early on they had protested against China's aggressive moves. The Philippines even went to the International Court which ruled in its favour. China ignored it all and went on strengthening sandbanks, filling up shoals, laying airstrips. American military sources now say that "hundreds" of surface-to-air missiles are being set up in the now militarised islands. Australian experts have said it is too late to challenge China. Philippine President advised his fellow Southeast Asian leaders to reconcile to the fait accompli. Without firing a shot, China has taken over an ocean and turned a half dozen littoral states into virtual satellites.

China's second aircraft carrier was launched last month, built in China at what is described as amazing speed. (India's second carrier being built at Kochi is eight years behind schedule). China has announced that six more carriers are being built, two to be deployed permanently in the Indian Ocean. Note, too, that China has taken over Gwadar port in Pakistan and has set up a military base in Djibouti's port in the Gulf of Aden. It's clear that China's status as a naval power in the Indian Ocean and Asia-Pacific region is already formidable, and steadily becoming more so.

Add to this the headway China has made in strategic alliances. It has significantly improved its relations with Russia, leading to a China-Russia-Pakistan economic partnership. What is interesting here is that Russia was a close ally of India for a long period during which it had kept Pakistan at a distance. The strategic balance of the whole region changed following India's decision to cultivate America in preference to Russia. What has India gained? Pakistan is today an integral part of Southeast Asian geopolitics as shaped by China and Russia while America's Asia pivot policy of which India was to be a central component has evaporated. Unpredictable as Trump's America is, the State Department said last week that China would be America's highest priority in Asia.

China's attitude to India has changed, too. It seems to have concluded that India is no longer the serious competitor it once appeared to be. On the OBOR issue China officially stated that "India will have a representative". (Perhaps a middle rank diplomat or businessman). The Chinese media, however, felt no need to be diplomatic. It said Delhi would be isolated and embarrassed by its stand, that Russia and Iran are "seeking to join the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor which will put India in a more awkward position".

Iran was initially most interested in building relations with India. Given Shia Iran's problems with Baluchistan, close ties with Tehran should have been a strategic (besides economic) priority for India. But our responses were tardy. Iran has since moved away to the warmer China-Pakistan-Russia partnership. Yet another pointer to the altered situation is India's apparent loss of interest in the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation. There was a time when India was eager to get full membership. In another month formalisation of full membership, along with Pakistan's, is to be processed. Despite the fact that this is part of the profound realignments that are taking place in Eurasia, India is sulking.

Even in Sri Lanka, when a project was drawn up for India to develop Trincomalee, local protests become so powerful that the idea had to be dropped. At the same time China is building a massive new port in the country's capital itself, adjacent to the existing Colombo port.

Somewhere we've done something not good. Who will find out? Who will take remedial measures? Who will bell the cat?

Thursday, May 4, 2017

Dissent is a vital part of nationalism. We need it. Enforced nationalism is counter-productive


It is part of India's vedic wisdom that even amrut, when taken in excess, turns poisonous. The case of nationalism is no different: Too much of it becomes counter-productive. Narendra Dabholkar, Govind Pansare and M.M.Kalburgi were nationalists, proud of their country and working for its betterment. But they were independent thinkers like most educated Indians are, and that was enough for hypernationalists, with the fanaticism of the ignorant, to kill them.

Fanatics have grown more defiant in the last couple of years. They dare even the Prime Minister. When cow vigilantism raised its head, Narendra Modi, though belatedly, condemned the vigilantes as anti-social. Some leaders of the vigilantes responded with words of defiance against the Prime Minister. After the BJP's recent victories, violent vigilantism has increased. Transporting even buffaloes invites attacks. A dairy farmer was lynched. UP's meat industry has collapsed leaving thousands jobless and the economy badly hit.

Add to this the misuse of sedition laws. The silliest example was the filing of a sedition case against Kannada actor-politician Ramya. Her crime? She said Pakistan was not hell, that ordinary Pakistanis were like ordinary Indians. Normal people would see this as a normal observation. But an overheated patriot accused her of sedition. She said she was entitled to her opinion. The self-styled nationalists responded by throwing eggs at her car. This kind of nationalism is one-dimensional, intolerant, in fact anti-national.

Manufactured nationalism enforced from above only leads to tyranny and oppression. Hitler's Germany proved that, as did Stalin's Soviet Union, Mao Zedong's China, Franco's Spain, Pinochet's Chile. On the other hand, dissent has never really harmed a nation. See America's record.

During the Vietnam war, America's writers and film-makers and students turned into vicious critics of the Government. Some 30,000 books came out on Vietnam. They minced no words. A 2013 study, bluntly titled Kill Anything That Moved: The Real American War in Vietnam, established how that war was a manifestation of American state terrorism.

No author was taken to court on sedition charges. In fact, public opinion forced America to end the war.

A New York Times columnist quoted chapter and verse to show that, as the Iraq war drew to a close, businessmen tied to President George Bush and his family were controlling business opportunities in the country in segments such as reconstruction. The columnist said that "Iraq is proving to be a bonanza for the Bush administration's corporate cronies... The Bush II crowd is arrogant, venal, mean-spirited and contemptuous of law and custom".

No case of sedition was filed against the columnist.

The director of a human rights organisation in New York said in an article that America used "torture, abuse, lies and cover-up" in Iraq. He described American occupation in Iraq as "a criminal enterprise masquerading as liberation".

He was not called anti-national.

A corporate executive wrote a book in 2003 arguing that American politicians had consistently promoted evil, from installing dictators in a dozen countries to supplying anthrax and arms to Taliban. The book's title: Rogue Nation.

No unknown patriot knocked at his door and, as he opened it, shot him dead.

Americans expressed their hatred for Bush in numerous ways. 'Impeach Bush' car stickers were among the more sober forms of protest. Some others left nothing to the imagination. Book titles, for example, were explicit: Stupid White Men, The Liar George Bush, Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them.

Not one of the writers had eggs thrown at them, let alone sedition cases filed.

After nationalism drove Margaret Thatcher to the Falklands War against Argentina in 1982, she organised a Thanksgiving Service in London, the assumption being that God was on UK's side and the nation had to express its gratitude to him. Britain's religious head, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Robert Runcie, took a different view. He said in his sermon: "Those who dare to interpret God's will must never claim him as an asset for one nation rather than another. War follows when the love and loyalty that should be offered to God are offered to some God-substitute, one of the most dangerous being nationalism".

The Indians who are promoting a parochial version of nationalism with the help of guns, eggs and the Sedition Act may be inspired by what they consider religious sentiments, but it's a misinterpretation of religion. History has given them a moment of opportunity. If they do not use that moment wisely, it will disappear.

Foolish things done with immunity because of political power are still foolish.

Monday, April 24, 2017

V. P. Singh was meant to be a dreamer, a poet, an artist; It was bad luck he ended up as prime minister


In the political universe of India V. P. Singh rose as high as a citizen could -- MLA, chief minister, union finance minister, defence minister, prime minister, father of coalition politics. For all that, he was seen as a "failure" because he was a lone crusader against corruption and for social justice; those who disapproved of crusaders were more powerful. The footprints V. P. Singh left on the sands of time were rapidly washed away.

To make it in politics in India, one needs a certain crudity of disposition, a well-developed insensitivity to other people's needs. V. P. Singh had the opposite attributes, for he was really not a politician; he was a poet and an artist. He was shaped by the essential qualities of an artist -- sensitiveness, a penchant for the subtleties that make up life, an eye for beauty including the beauty of the invisible. That a man of creative sensibilities was pushed into the negative tumble of politics was the tragedy of V. P. Singh.

How different it would have been if he had decided to dedicate his life to writing. See how his imagination takes wing as he watches tea being poured through a tea-stainer. The poem is titled Tea-Stainer and the lines go:

Bounded by wires
And punctured by holes
Is my being.

For a moment
My heart
Rapturously fills up
Then drop by drop
Drains away.

Whatever you may pour
Is never retained

What remains
Are some drained leaves
Spent desires.

Life then a wait
For someone to come
And make tea again.

Fortunately some of his work as poet and painter is available in book form. He usually wrote poems in Hindi, then, Tagore-like, translated them himself into English, making his imageries and dreamings available to a wider audience. Every Time I Wake Up is a collection of poems published by the Penguin Group in 2006. It's really a collector's item because, apart from the surprisingly revealing poems, some of them just two or four lines and untitled, the book contains evocative drawings by the poet. The cover jacket carries colour paintings in front and back in two contrasting styles.

V. P. Singh was a sick man. (He died in November 2008 after a long struggle with bone marrow cancer). The loneliness and the anxieties hospitalisation brought him are the more moving for the candidness with which he wrote about them. Every time I wake up / It is night.... / With only my echo to tell me / How far away I am. How could a man of such perceptive responsiveness cope with the all-or-nothing attrition wars of politics? Singh as Defence Minister unveiled Rajiv Gandhi's involvement in kickback defence deals such as Bofors. But he could not pursue that campaign with the relentlessness it needed. Poets just do not have the ruthlessness of politicians.

Did V. P. Singh have a private love link? It could as well be the flights of fancy of a poet felled by a fatal illness. But we cannot miss the tenderness of some of his untitled couplets that take up half the book under the generic heading Vignettes. After confessing in the very first Vignette that Desire tip-toed right up to me / It was too late to run, he gives us some teasers:

Blossoms whispered
You are in town

The floating lines are no doubt meant to be momentary thoughts that inspire and/or depress the poet. But the power of sentiment makes you pause and ponder when you read sudden lines like

The moon
Just peeped into my window
Did you send it ?

He certainly was aware that his public image was that of a politician, not a writer or artist. There are repeated references to the fallibilities and transitoriness of what makes news. But clearly the politician found consolation in the poet.

All their swords
Could not slay
My shadow

Not that he considered himself a ranking poet. At one point he says, with disarming self-effacement.
I counted
My poems
Like money
And realised
How bankrupt am I.

Perhaps he knew that he was trapped in politics. That, at any rate, seems to be the message in the very last Vignette in the book:

I switched off the moon
And switched on the lights
I was in town.

A decade after his passing, he is still in town -- as prime minister, and as poet and artist.